Mental Health

Children Raised In Greener Neighborhoods Experience Cognitive Benefits

Children in the outdoors
Children who were raised in green spaces experience beneficial effects on cognitive function. Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

Being exposed to greenery during childhood may alter the structure of the brain in a really good way. A new study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health breaks down the process.

Participants in the study consisted of 253 schoolchildren from the BREATHE project in Barcelona. By using satellite-based information retrieved from the addresses of the children, the researchers studied the relationship between a child's external surroundings and their brain development. 

As per the data analysis, long-term exposure to nature and greenery was linked with higher white and gray matter volume in the brain. These regions overlapped with areas that were involved with better cognitive function.

Compared to others, children raised in homes surrounded by greenery fared better when tested in terms of memory power and attentiveness. Brain anatomy was studied using high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI) while working memory and inattentiveness were measured using computerized tests.

“The study adds to growing evidence suggesting that early life exposure to green space and other environmental factors can exert measurable and lasting effects on our health through the life course,” says co-author Michael Jerrett, the department chair and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Additionally, the presence of nature included other benefits for children such as clean air, enriched microbial inputs, and less noise. While growing up in such an environment, children, in particular, develop a sense of adventure and are influenced to pick up traits such as curiosity and risk-taking.

Prof. Jordi Sunyer, who is a researcher and co-author of the study, stressed on the importance of transforming cityscapes and increasing access to natural environment. Numerous organizations and researchers too expressed similar views, highlighting factors such as physical and mental health, climate change, social capital etc.

"This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to green spaces and the structure of the brain," explained Dr. Payam Dadvand, the main author of the study who has been working for nine years in Barcelona. "Our findings suggest that exposure to green spaces early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain," he added. 

Dadvand, a medical doctor by training, has spent the past decade studying the impact of the environment on both maternal and child health. Previously, he worked on a similar project, coordinated by Sunyer, which involved 2,593 children between the ages of 7 to 10 in Barcelona. The 2015 study yielded similar results, strongly suggesting that consistent outdoor exposure is vital for healthy brain development.

The study concludes that further research is needed "to confirm our findings in other populations, settings, and climates; to evaluate other cognitive and neurological outcomes; to examine differences according to the nature and quality of green spaces (including specific types of vegetation) and children’s access to and use of them."